Even before visiting the Bangladesh/Burma border area last week, my work as a member of the House of Commons International Development Committee meant I knew a fair amount about the scale of the Rohingya crisis. But nothing quite prepares you for the enormity of the humanitarian emergency that you see for yourself when you go there and which could, within weeks, still claim the lives of thousands of those who have managed to survive and escape the ethnic cleansing taking place in Burma/Myanmar itself.
According to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group overseeing humanitarian relief operations in the area, over 671,000 men, women and children fled across the border into Bangladesh in just six months since the latest military onslaught on the Rohingya people began in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on 25th August last year. Already traumatised by seeing their villages torched and friends and family either killed or missing, an estimated 589,000 of those refugees are today crammed together in the Kutupalong-Bakukhali Expansion Site down the road from Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar resort.
The area used to be a forest, but now trees are nowhere to be seen. They have been replaced by flimsy shacks made of wood, plastic sheeting, bamboo and – occasionally - tin. The shacks in which the refugees now live are everywhere, precariously perched on the loose earth that deforestation has left behind.
Much has already been written about the horrors unfolding inside Rakhine state as well as the emergency relief effort going on to provide the Rohingya refugees with food, shelter and urgent medical care. Now, though, another killer is just weeks away. The coming monsoon rains and the likelihood of cyclone will cause floods, mudslides and landslips that will simply sweep away many of the makeshift shacks. Aid agencies have estimated that shacks currently housing over 100,000 Rohingyas in Kutupalong-Bakukhali could be destroyed during the rains, with 23,000 refugees living on the slopes at high risk of landslide. The dirt roads that are the only access into the camp will also turn into quagmires impassable to rescue vehicles trying to reach those buried or cut off by mudslides and flood. Refugees that are cut off will, in turn, become still more vulnerable to disease than they already are in the crowded conditions of the camp.
Aid agencies are doing their best to dig what drainage channels they can and to shore up at least some structures in the camps. They are also urgently bringing in aggregate to strengthen access roads. But neither the time that is left before the rains come nor the topography of the area will allow those efforts to be enough. If thousands of lives are not to be lost, the urgent infrastructure work now going on will have to be supplemented by an emergency evacuation of those living in the most exposed shacks to safer ground. And it has to happen before the rains come.
The Bangladesh government say that land has been identified to relocate over 100,000 refugees most at risk from landslide and flood, but progress in turning promise into reality is still painfully slow.
Bangladesh deserves huge credit for opening its borders to Rohingya refugees fleeing the latest and worst of a series of pogroms in Rakhine state that have brought the total number of Rohingya refugees in the country to over a million. Many thousands of Rohingya refugees would not be alive today but for the generosity of Bangladesh and its people in offering them sanctuary. What the medium-term future holds for the Rohingya raises massive issues for Bangladesh. And facing those issues requires action from the international community as a whole - to hold to account those responsible for the pogroms against the Rohingya and to redouble pressure on Myanmar to end the persecution so that the Rohingya can at last return to their homeland as full and equal citizens.
These are all vital and long term issues to address. But they should not obscure the fact that there is a different and immediate disaster also looming and that time is running out to save lives from the coming monsoon and cyclone season. Clarity of strategy and practical action from the Bangladesh Government in conjunction with the United Nations are needed if that disaster is to be averted.
And that action is needed now.
Richard Burden MP is a Labour member of The House of Commons International Development Committee. The Committee visited Bangladesh between 3rd and 7th March 2018